Geoff Courtnall doesn’t have many hockey memories from his early days growing up in the Cowichan Valley in B.C. — beside the fact that he initially refused to the play sport at all.
Although he’d grow up to score 799 points in the NHL, young Courtnall walked away from ice sports at six years old when he took issue with an early skating instructor’s insistence that he wear figure skates to his lessons.
“I said, ‘That’s enough of that, I’m not going back,’” Courtnall says.
He held out for several years, until he was nine years old and tired of watching from the stands as his younger brother, Russ, ripped around the ice.
The Courtnall family had moved to Victoria by then. Archie and Kathy Courtnall moved their family south when Archie was transferred from his job at B.C. Forest Products in the small lake-side community of Youbou. And so it was in Victoria — not Youbou — that the Courtnall brothers really learned the game.
But looking back today, Geoff Courtnall still thinks of the Cowichan Valley, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this week, as the place where it all began. It was there (before that skating instructor went and ruined everything) that Courtnall first carved his skates into the ice of Somenos Lake near the city of Duncan. And it was there that he got back on the ice after family tragedy nearly stripped away his love of hockey.
Courtnall can’t remember exactly how old he was, but he can still picture it in his mind today: His dad, Archie, took him and his sister, Cheryl, to the frozen-over marsh on the edge of Somenos. He tied their tiny skates up tight, and together the three of them went wobbling across the icy flats.
Off the ice, Archie was carving out another path for his children. From the time he was 10, Geoff worked side-by-side with his dad on weekends, fixing up houses or building fences. Archie pushed his son hard, set on teaching him the value of a full day’s work. And at the end of each weekend, they’d walk down to the corner store, where Geoff would accept his earned wage in the form of a cream soda or root beer.
“That was a big deal for me,” Courtnall remembers.
Archie had lived a tough life, raised by his grandparents before heading to boarding school in his teens. He played pro hockey for the AHL Cleveland Barons, briefly, before taking a better wage at the mill in Youbou and settling into family life. He knew that Geoff — always the smallest on his teams — was unlikely to have a significant future in the game he loved. So he pushed his son to focus on school and taught him skills that could translate into a practical living.
“He was always worried about me putting too much pressure on myself [in hockey] and nothing else,” Courtnall says. “I was very close to him.”
But as Archie imparted lasting life lessons in his children, he also battled with severe depression that worsened when his only brother drowned in a swimming accident. Geoff was in his early teens at the time, and still remembers the agony his father carried. Sometimes the two of them would sit and stare at the ocean for hours. Other times, Archie would quit work, stay up through the night and drink heavily.
In August 1978, Archie committed suicide at the age of 45.
Geoff tried to continue playing hockey after his father’s death, but by Christmastime he’d left his Jr. B team.
“I wasn’t having fun,” he says. “Life was sh—y.”
At 16 years old, Courtnall left home for Calgary, where he worked in construction for six months. He returned home that summer and played pickup with a few of his old Jr. B teammates, but had no intention of returning to the game. But when the coach of the WHL’s Victoria Cougars, Jack Shupe, saw Courtnall on the ice and asked him to come out to training camp, he agreed.
Still one of the smaller guys on the ice, Courtnall impressed with his tenacity. He was the final cut in training camp. But he was offered a spot on a brand-new Jr. B team in Duncan, back where he first learned to skate with his dad on Somenos Lake.
Courtnall decided to give the game one more shot and suited up for the inaugural season of the Cowichan Valley Capitals. The Jr. B team was mostly made up of mid-level players with a few offensive stars. But they connected as a group and by Christmastime the Cowichan Valley Arena started to fill with fans.
“Cowichan got me away from Victoria and gave me something to really focus on. I started to have a lot of fun there,” Courtnall says. “We were a bunch of guys who were good average players, [but] became good as a team. That gave me a taste of the higher competition.”
Courtnall’s homecoming didn’t last long. That season he sprouted up to six feet tall and put up big numbers with linemates Dan Hodgson and Rick Nasheim. When the Capitals’ season ended, Courtnall was called up to the Victoria Cougars as they went on a run all the way to the Memorial Cup in Windsor.
Over the next two seasons with the Cougars, Courtnall worked tirelessly to improve his game — a work ethic he says he carried on from his father. He signed with the Boston Bruins as an undrafted free agent in 1983. He’d go on to win the Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers in 1988. Courtnall later starred with the Vancouver Canucks — helping lead the team to the Stanley Cup final in 1994 — and then with the St. Louis Blues before a series of concussions forced him out of the game in 2000.
Life in retirement was a new challenge. When he was forced to stop playing, suffering from post-concussion syndrome, Courtnall left the game behind. He built a few houses, got into real estate, and eventually into the mining business — a diversified life, because hockey was never the only thing.
In 2004, Courtnall and his siblings spearheaded the creation of an emergency mental health care facility, called the Archie Courtnall Centre, at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. They’ve since helped raise more than $3 million in support of mental health initiatives in the area.
And, today, when he thinks back to those early days in Cowichan Valley, the moments that stand out are as distinct and important as ever: the time he first learned to skate beside his father, and when he first learned to skate without him.